Wu, a trained master of Chinese opera who has broken with tradition by staging Western literary classics, made Lear into a vehicle for psychodrama, leaving much of the play’s action to the side and embracing the internal dilemma of Lear as character. As Alex Huang oberserves in an excellent essay on Wu’s career,
The tension between father and child in King Lear is turned into an allegory about Wu’s uneasy relationship with his jingju [Beijing opera] master.
Act 1, “The Play,” starts and ends in storm. I always think of these scenes as the heart of the play, but it was great to cut directly to it, to see the rest of the place as architecture surrounding this basic confrontation of human body with unfriendly elements. Wu’s Lear engages himself, his elaborate costume, his long white beard, and his world in an apparently vain attempt to connect. It’s Shakespeare as Beckett — interesting the Wu has also performed “Waiting for Godot” — and it’s both intense and moving.
Act 2, “Playing,” followed a 20 min intermission with manic energy: Wu starts as the Fool then becomes Lear’s dog (!), followed by Kent, Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, the blinded Gloucester, Edmund, and the “mad” Edgar, who calls himself, in one of a few English words spoken to comic effect, “Tom.” Particularly powerful as the evil sisters and as Gloucester seeking the cliffs of Dover, Wu’s physical inventiveness buoyed this longer act, constantly reinventing himself and his surroundings. His Gloucester climbed atop a large rock formation at the climax of this scene — the rocks had been half-broken human statues in Act 1 before they had fallen — and the roar of the ocean made this scene seem less invented, less acted, than it sometimes does on stage.
Act 3, “A Player,” features Wu playing himself, as the super-titles and program notes reveal. He’s still reconnizably King Lear, but filtered through Wu’s own struggles with his master, his artistic career, and perhaps — I’m not certain about this, or exactly what it amounts to– about the relationship between Chinese and English dramatic traditions. He performs no other characters, but when he walks on stage carrying the elaborate costume he wore in Act 1 in his arms, it’s hard not to thing of the old man bearing his daughter’s body.
I left thinking about Taiwan as an especially fraught cultural location, caught between China and a global world that has become increasingly, since Wu and his colleagues started the Contemporary Legend Theater in 1986, Anglophone. Alex Huang reads Wu’s Lear — which apparently also goes under the title, Li Er zai ci [Lear Is Here], though the program last night, at New Haven’s Festival of Arts and Ideas, didn’t mention that — as a “local” rather than “global” production. I agree with his focus on the intimacy of the performance, the way Wu’s Lear burrows down into internal questions, so much that (for me at least) I felt the performance was richest in Acts 1 and 3, when he wasn’t switching between characters but was just the mad old king / Chinese Shakespearean actor, inviting the audience to see him try to work himself out.
The dialogue, spoken in Chinese but also projected with English translation on two screens flanking the stage, was largely — 2/3? — straight translations from the play, but an extended poetic riff on things that the self does to itself — I hate myself / I love myself / I forget myself / I imagine myself… — had the feeling of a strong distorting reading of the play rather than a production of it.
I’ll be thinking about Wu Hsing-Kuo the next time I see anyone else play this role.
This sort of thing isn’t for everyone, though the house was pretty full last night. “I would never,” said Olivia when I told her where I was going, “see a play with only one Chinese character.” Then she smiled to make sure I understood her joke, about “characters” being units of Chinese writing as well as people. Clever girl.